As we come to the close of the New Testament we find these three short but important letters by John (authorship is disputed, but likely all three were penned by the same John who penned the fourth gospel). These epistles of John contain many important theological truths.
Perhaps a major theme found in these letters is that of certainty and assurance. Indeed, so important are these matters that I will spend all of my discussion in this article focusing on them. John Stott is well worth quoting in this regard:
To read the Epistles of John is to enter another world altogether, whose marks are assurance, knowledge, confidence, and boldness. The predominant theme of these Epistles is Christian certainty. Their characteristic verbs are ginoskein, ‘to perceive’ (15 times), and eidenai, ‘to know’ (25 times), while the characteristic noun is parresia, ‘confidence of attitude’ or ‘boldness of speech.” The Christian’s certainty is twofold—objective (that the Christian religion is true) and subjective (that he himself has been born of God and possesses eternal life). Both are expounded by John, who takes it for granted that this double assurance is right and healthy in all Christian people. His teaching about these certainties, their nature and the grounds on which they are built, urgently needs to be heard and heeded today.
Or as he puts it in the beginning of his classic book Christ the Controversialist:
The corridors of the New Testament reverberate with dogmatic affirmations beginning ‘We know’, ‘We are sure’, ‘We are confident’. If you question this, read the First Epistle of John in which verbs meaning ‘to know’ occur about forty times. They strike a note of joyful assurance which is sadly missing from many parts of the church today and which needs to be recaptured.
Others can be cited here. In his quite helpful volume on John’s gospel and letters, Andreas Kostenberger puts it this way:
The point of 1 John, then, is to instill confidence in true believers that their salvation is assured. At the same time, John in his first letter, similar to Jesus in John’s gospel, couples these words of assurance with exhortations to persevere (e.g., 1 John 2:5-6). True believers must keep God’s commandments…
Everyone who is truly born of God is assured that “the One who was born of God keeps them safe, and the evil one cannot harm them” (1 John 5:18). Thus 1 John, in further development of Jesus’ words of assurance and exhortation in the gospel, serves as a manifesto of Christian assurance, which paints a realistic, and supremely hopeful picture of Christian discipleship and perseverance, which is ultimately undergirded, not by human efforts, but by the power of God.
Or as Marianne Meye Thompson puts it in her brief commentary:
One theme that permeates 1 John in particular is the theme of assurance. Again and again the author assures his readers that they can be confident of their standing with God. Believers are the children of God (3:1-3), born of God, with new life. Believers have assurance of salvation because they trust in the God who gives salvation, new birth and new life. God keeps them in eternal life; it is not earned by one’s own efforts or superior moral achievements.
This theme is also given a great amount of attention in Christopher Bass’ 200-page book, That You May Know: Assurance of Salvation in 1 John. In his conclusion he offers this summarisation:
This book has argued that John views the believer’s assurance of eternal life, which is grounded in the atoning sacrifice of Christ, as compatible with his or her ongoing need to persevere in righteous living. In fact, John has taught that these two ideas are inextricably tied together in that the believers’ confidence that they are children of God due to the work of Christ is set forth as a key impetus to their perseverance (3:1-3; 4:7–11; 5:18–21) and their perseverance in righteous living actually serves to bolster their assurance (e.g., 2:3-5; 3:14, 19, 24; 4:13).
Also worth quoting are some closing words from his appendix, “Who Keeps Whom”. He says this: “Throughout this epistle, John holds in tension the idea that the believer must persevere in his faith and that he can find assurance that he is in fact saved.”
But let me finish with some more thoughts from John Stott’s commentary on the Johannine epistles. He quotes Mark 13:13 (“He that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved”), and offers this helpful commentary: They are saved
“not because salvation is the reward of endurance, but because endurance is the hall-mark of the saved. If the false teachers had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us. This is stated as a principle. Those who are of us stay with us. Future and final perseverance is the ultimate test of a past participation in Christ (cf. Heb. 3:14).”
Here then are some recommended commentaries, nearly all reflecting a conservative and/or evangelical point of view:
1,2,3 John expository commentaries
Boice, James Montgomery, The Epistles of John (Baker, 1979, 2004)
Lloyd-Jones, Martyn, Life in Christ: Studies in 1 John, 5 vols. (Crossway, 1993-1995)
O’Donnell, Douglas Sean, 1-3 John (REC, 2015)
1,2,3 John critical commentaries
Akin, Daniel, 1, 2, 3 John (NAC, 2001)
Barker, Glenn, 1, 2, 3 John (EBC, 1981)
Burge, Gary, The Letters of John (NIVAC, 1996)
Derickson, Gary, 1, 2 & 3 John (EEC, 2014)
Jackman, David, The Message of John’s Letters (BST, 1988)
Jobes, Karen, 1, 2, 3 John (ZECNT, 2014)
Johnson, Thomas, 1, 2, and 3 John (NIBC, 1993)
Kistemaker, Simon, James and I-III John (NTC, 1986)
Kruse, Colin, The Letters of John (PNTC. 2000)
Marshall, I. Howard, The Epistles of John (NICNT, 1978)
Smalley, Stephen, 1, 2, 3 John (WBC, 1984)
Stott, John, The Epistles of John (TNTC, 1964)
Thompson, Marianne Meye, 1-3 John (IVPNTC, 1992)
Witherington, Ben, A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on Titus,1-2 Timothy, 1-3 John (IVP, 2006)
Yarbrough, Robert, 1-3 John (BECNT, 2008)
Wright, N. T., The Early Christian Letters: James, Peter, John, and Judah (WJK, 2011)
Christopher, Bass, That You May Know: Assurance of Salvation in 1 John. B&H, 2008.
Kostenberger Andreas, A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters. Zondervan, 2009.
My recommendations on commentaries – if I have to narrow things down a bit – would be to make use of Burge, Jobes, Kruse, Stott and Yarbrough.
Happy study and happy reading.